A ruthlessly executed, deliberately timed attack by masked gunmen against a Shia religious center in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province earlier this month has caused some observers to maintain that it portends the spillover into the kingdom of the sectarian violence that has devastated both Syria and Iraq. There is little doubt that this unprecedented attack could have long-term repercussions for Sunni-Shia relations inside Saudi Arabia as well as far-reaching ramifications for the international community’s efforts against global terrorism. However, the Saudi public’s revulsion at the attack and widespread calls for “unity” from both Sunnis and Shia, in addition to the government’s quick actions and unequivocal rhetoric may actually usher in a new, more positive chapter in the Kingdom’s long-strained Sunni-Shia relations.
Nevertheless, it is clear that in the coming weeks and months, the Saudi government will have to utilize every tool at its disposal and rely on its long experience in the field of counterterrorism to prevent a repeat of this type of sectarian violence, while taking conciliatory measures towards its Shia citizens – as it has done already - to forestall a serious rupture in its often tenuous relations with them.
The attack against a Husseiniya – a Shia religious community center – in the Shia-majority governorship of Al Ahsa in Eastern Saudi Arabia has both shocked and repulsed Saudis for its brazenness, brutality and clear intent to foment sectarian strife.
Not only did the perpetrators pick the eve of the holiest Shia religious observance of Ashura, which commemorates the seventh century “martyrdom” of Prophet Muhammad’s grandson, Hussein - marking the beginning of the still extant “schism” between Sunnis and Shia - they also displayed the ruthlessness that has become the hallmark of Al Qaeda and its offshoots. Several of those killed and injured were in fact children.
While Al Qaeda has targeted Saudi security personnel and infrastructure, residential compounds catering to Westerners and even oil installations in the past, it had not conducted an attack on Shia civilians before and at a time and place that were clearly chosen to add insult to injury.
While many of the terrorist attacks conducted on Saudi soil over the years were carried out by individuals affiliated with the Yemen-based Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) including a July 5th cross-border attack that killed five Saudi security personnel in the southern province of Sharura, a number of Saudi sources confirmed within hours of the attack in Al Ahsa that the suspected leader of the cell that carried it out had a history of fighting in Iraq and Syria and had recently “infiltrated” back to Saudi Arabia. While no militant group has yet taken credit for the attack, the prospect that this might have been the work of the so called Islamic State is a foreboding one for Saudi security authorities, as well as Saudi Shia.
The Saudi government’s public acknowledgement that it is participating in the U.S.-led airstrikes against Islamic State strongholds in Syria is an indication that it has indeed put reducing – if not eliminating – the threat that this particular Al Qaeda offshoot poses to its security on top of its agenda. For their part, various members of IS – including a number of Saudis – have vowed to “liberate the Land of the Two Holy Mosques” once their work in Iraq and Syria is finished. In what was surely a disconcerting development this past summer, Saudi authorities busted what the Saudi media characterized as a “vast network” of terrorist suspects operating inside the kingdom whose primary mission was to act as a “conduit” between militant groups in Syria and Yemen.
For the past few years, the Saudis have tried to make the case that of all the countries actively engaged in countering terrorism, their effort is the oldest and most comprehensive. Whether it has also been the most "successful" is more debatable.
The Interior Ministry has largely succeeded in dismantling Al Qaeda’s branch and infrastructure in Saudi Arabia. However, some militants did manage to flee to Yemen to join AQAP, where the group continues to play an extremely destabilizing role that country, already mired in political turmoil. The preponderance of Saudis among the ranks of AQAP and IS remains to be a serious problem.
While the international media’s attention has focused on the attack’s implications for the global effort to contain IS and other Al Qaeda offshoots, its more immediate impact has been on the social fabric of Saudi Arabia. A widespread backlash against the attack among the general Saudi public, accompanied by an outpouring of support for the Shia victims, has been reciprocated by calls for unity from Shia community leaders.
Just as importantly, the measures the Saudi government has taken and the narrative it and its religious leadership have adopted, seem to have further reinforced the idea that a “united front” against terrorism encompassing all Saudis, was indeed emerging.
For a regime that has long been accused of systematically discriminating against its Shia minority and of “exporting” Sunni extremism across the Muslim world, the Saudi government immediate reaction has been swift and well-orchestrated.
Within hours of the attack, Saudi forces conducted security operations in six cities across several regions which have netted at least 33 arrests so far, and resulted in the deaths of 2 suspected militants and the 2 security officers. Likewise, the spokesman of the Ministry of Interior confirmed in a press conference less than twenty four hours after the attack that the perpetrators of the attack belonged to the “deviant group”, Saudi code for Al Qaeda. For its part, the Saudi media nipped in the bud any conspiracy theories about a “foreign hand” being behind the attack by suggesting within very early on that it was the work of Saudis.
Just as importantly, the statements of condemnation issued by some of the most senior Sunni clerics appeared to be a message to critics who have argued that while the Saudi government preaches moderation and tolerance in “Western” fora, it does not apply the same standards at home.
Along the same lines, the Minister of Interior, Muhammed Bin Naif, who has not only spear-headed the charge against Al Qaeda but also appears to be well positioned among “next generation” of Saudi royals to ascend the throne in the not too distant future, attended the funeral services of some of those who died in the attack and visited others in the hospital and the media was there to capture all of it.
Going forward, it behooves the Saudi government to continue to adopt this two pronged approach of cracking down on Sunni extremists and reaching out to Shia minority. The future of the Kingdom hangs in the balance.
Nazer is a terrorism analyst at JTG, Inc and a former political analyst at the Embassy of Saudi Arabia in Washington, DC.